Given the various crises in our world today, the claim made by some that we are in the midst of what in Buddhism is called a “dark age” certainly has some merit. But for those who study and practice the Buddhist teachings, a very different view of our moment in time and the possibilities it affords presents itself. We are, I believe, at the beginning of what could become for Buddhism a new golden age.
For the first time in many centuries, Buddhists of all regions and all persuasions can be in touch with each other, interact with each other, and learn about and from each other. Today, in any sizable Western city, any Buddhist so inclined can encounter, among both heritage and convert practitioners, virtually every kind of Buddhism that is still being practiced on the planet. This situation mirrors those conditions that obtained when Buddhism was at the height of its influence in Asia. In the centuries after the Buddha’s parinirvana, in the Indian subcontinent, Buddhists of older and newer schools regularly interacted with each other and even lived together in the same monasteries. As Buddhism spread from its Indian homeland throughout Asia, Buddhists of many different persuasions maintained regular contact with each other. In the fertile climate of exchange and debate, Buddhism flourished, bringing forth new philosophical schools, styles of practice, institutions, commentarial literature, and so forth.
But then, not too long after the end of the first millennium of the common era, Buddhism died out in India, and forms of Buddhism that had interacted with each other in India lost contact with each other because of geographic separation. Foundational Buddhism, which had established itself as the Theravada school in South Asia, and Mahayana Buddhism, which traveled north and east to China and Tibet, almost completely lost touch with one another; by and large, they ceased even to know of each other’s existence. By the colonial era, even the memory of Buddhism had been mostly wiped out in India. The Mahabodhi stupa, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, had become a Hindu temple, and few Buddhists even knew where it was. Indeed, European explorers and scholars played a big role in figuring out that Japanese and Sri Lankans practiced different forms of the same religion and that it had originated in India.
Today, Buddhists around the world are again able to learn from and converse with one another, and this could set the stage for a new period of flourishing of the buddhadharma. We contemporary Buddhists could ourselves be part of, could help usher in, this historic renewal. But for this to happen, we will have to step beyond sectarian boundaries and venture outside the comfort zone that affiliation with a particular center or lineage provides. My experience over the years tells me that in meeting this challenge we have a long way to go.
For many years, I have taught a course at various centers called “Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners.” Since Buddhist history is not a sectarian matter, the content of the course is the same regardless of where I teach it. But when I teach the course at a Vipassana center, only members of that group attend, and when I teach it at a Zen center, only members of that group attend. Even though there would likely be much to be gained by Buddhists from different affiliations studying their history together, they so far prefer to stay with their own, thus allowing old habits of thought to persist. Zen Buddhists frequently mistake contemporary Theravadins for “Hinayanists,” the stock straw character of much of Mahayana literature. Theravadins are skeptical of Mahayana Buddhism and even more so of Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayanists often think that the various schools of Buddhism can be fitted neatly into their internal system of three yanas, or vehicles. And none of the above knows much about Pure Land or Nichiren schools. Furthermore, some Buddhist teachers actively discourage their students from even listening to other teachers or reading books not written by themselves or a small circle of other “approved” teachers. Given the extraordinary opportunities we have to learn from and with one another, this is truly a sorry state of affairs.
I think that, in our time, part of serious Buddhist training in any lineage should include learning about and encountering many different Buddhist traditions. This need not happen at the beginning stages of practice, but certainly before one can be considered a senior practitioner or teacher, one should have such in our time, part of serious Buddhist training in any lineage should include learning about and encountering many different Buddhist traditions. breadth of experience under one’s belt. With the great variety of centers in almost every city, the abundance of reliable books about all forms of Buddhism, and the possibilities for communication on the internet, it is not difficult to gain this kind of training. Doing so will, among other things, deepen immensely one’s appreciation for and understanding of one’s chosen lineage, because one comes to understand it in itsspecificity. The motto of my academic field, comparative religion, is “To know one religion is to know none,” and I believe that this applies within Buddhism.
Some object to, or even take offense at, this idea. The claim that truly understanding one’s own religious perspective entails knowledge about other perspectives seems counterintuitive to them. Given how much there is to learn from their own teachers and about their own tradition, they see no sense in studying what lies outside it. But if such students would only take the time to read or listen more widely, they would at the same time learn much about their own tradition. In fact, I think that after students have a good foundation in their own lineage, they may well learn more about their own tradition by studying some other tradition than they would by devoting the same amount of time and energy to attending yet another program at their own center or reading yet another book within their tradition. It is not a matter of being dissatisfied with one’s own practice situation, although if that is the case, one definitely should explore other options. But how can one gain a comprehensive understanding of Buddhism if one knows only a small piece of the total picture, with little sense of its relationship to either the other pieces or the whole?
How, concretely, can learning about another form of Buddhism actually improve one’s understanding and practice of one’s own tradition? The answer has to do with the human tendency to assume that one’s own way of life and of thinking is both normal and universal and that anything different is unnatural and inferior. When I began studying French in college, I demonstrated the subject of my new learning to my mother. “That’s a stupid-sounding language,” she responded. It’s a small incident, but I think it illustrates well the common tendency of people with a narrow range of experience to assess what is different in a harsh light. People who have little acquaintance with other cultures or ways of thinking often assume that their worldview corresponds, one to one, with the world as it is, and we are today witness to the devastating consequences that flow from that assumption. Serious learning about other ways of being, including other ways of being Buddhist, clarifies that one’s own way of construing the world only represents a world, not the world. There are, in fact, many coexisting worlds within the planet we inhabit. Insight into the relativity and contingency of one’s own version of the world is a watershed event in the development of a practitioner. That insight spurs the emergence of immense friendliness toward and curiosity about the worlds of others, and as these two spiritual qualities grow, one’s understanding of one’s own tradition grows exponentially.
Insight into the contingency of one’s tradition leads to greater understanding and appreciation of its specificity. A spiritual tradition is neither generic nor universal. To see what makes one’s own tradition uniquely itself is to be disabused of the notion that it is what all sensible, thinking people would arrive at if only they would get enlightened. The kind of thing I’m talking about can be likened to traveling to a different culture for the first time in one’s life. While one visit might not bring a great deal of knowledge about that other culture, it will surely teach one a lot about one’s own. There is no other way to learn so much about the uniqueness of one’s own lifeways—including the fact that what might work well in one context might not work at all in another—as serious study of how other people do things. The same applies to how different Buddhists do things. Vajrayanists can learn much about why utpatti (generation stage of deity yoga) is so central to their form of Buddhism; Zen practitioners can learn much about their own emphasis on precision and detail; Pure Land Buddhists can better understand the differences and the similarities they have with other forms of Buddhism. And so it goes. Few discoveries are more valuable in one’s practice path or on one’s path to becoming a decent human being.
The comparative lens is one of the most powerful tools that I know of for learning and for self-discovery. There are, however, more useful and less useful ways to use it. I spent my career in the comparative study of religions, teaching relatively conservative students with very little exposure to religious and cultural diversity how to understand and appreciate religious perspectives very different from their own. The techniques I used in that context also work well when applied to intra-Buddhist learning.
The biggest mistake people make when first beginning to look at unfamiliar perspectives is immediately to make comparisons between the familiar and the unfamiliar. The power of the comparative lens comes not from making positive and negative comparisons; rather, it comes from seeing each perspective clearly, in its own right. In other words, one gets a deeper understanding of one’s own perspective by understanding how others understand their own perspective. One must be patient and not jump to superficial assessments, whether they are of the “Oh, they are just like us” or the “They are just ridiculous” type. It takes a long time and lots of knowledge before one’s comparative observations will have any cogency.
To look into the comparative lens successfully it is necessary to enter into one’s encounter with another perspective with as few expectations, preconceptions, and assumptions as possible. In Zen parlance, one needs a “beginner’s mind.” At the start of my course on world religions, I always told my students, by way of analogy, that just as one leaves one’s shoes outside the door of every Asian religious sanctuary, they should leave all their preconceptions, expectations, and prejudices outside the door of my classroom. If, at the end of class, they needed the shoes of their preconceptions, they would still be waiting for them outside the door. The same holds, of course, for Buddhists engaged in an encounter with unfamiliar forms of Buddhism. While attempting to understand another Buddhist perspective, one must temporarily “bracket” everything one thinks one knows about what Buddhism should be. This bracketing is the only way to actually enter into the thoughtworld of another. Given how closely this advice follows basic meditation instructions for working with thoughts, it should be easy for Buddhists to grasp. But given how often we are taught to evaluate other approaches as lacking or not “what the Buddha really taught,” it might not be so easy to put into practice.
Having bracketed one’s assumptions, one then begins the slow, contemplative process of grasping the unfamiliar perspective empathetically, from the inside, as nearly as possible as that tradition’s own adherents understand it. Here, empathy involves using one’s imagination to enter into the feelings and thoughts of others. In my experience, developing empathy for the unfamiliar is a genuine practice of contemplation, the second of the three prajna principles—hearing, contemplating, and meditating— that help us internalize the dharma. Like any contemplative exercise, the development of empathetic understanding can be frustratingly slow, and it is crucial not to hurry the process. Successful contemplation here depends on developing and maintaining an open, flexible, curious state of mind. This contemplation involves holding the question, resting in the question. Rather than grasping for answers or solutions, one must become comfortable with open-ended uncertainty. The watchword for contemplation is “What is this?” rather than “I’ve got it!”
The understanding that comes through empathetic contemplation occurs at a much deeper level than the snap judgments and superficial assessments we are so often prone to make. It is a two-step process. First one puts aside one’s assumptions and ideas based on one’s own perspective; second, one enters into the perspective one is attempting to understand, seeing and feeling it from the inside. This is the kind of homework we need to do more of, Buddhist to Buddhist. Those approaches that are not intuitively congenial or about which we tend to be dismissive—chances are these signal our blind spots. It is precisely toward those styles of Buddhism that we are prone to misunderstand and underappreciate that we can and should direct our attention. Then, with time, Mahayanists would understand, both empathetically and intellectually, why Theravadins do not usually take the bodhisattva vow, and Theravadins would understand why Mahayanists do. Vipassana meditators would better understand why Pure Land Buddhists chant the nembutsu, and Pure Land Buddhists would better understand why Vipassana folks so emphasize meditation. This would be a far more congenial and even mutually beneficial state of affairs than what one often encounters in Buddhist centers. I’ll never forget the very sincere Zen student who said to me she didn’t understand how Buddhists who don’t take the bodhisattva vow could be evaluated as anything but selfish. She wasn’t at all hostile; she just didn’t understand. This says a lot about the sectarian nature of the training she had received at her home institution. I believe we can do better.
I find that in talking about this practice of Buddhist-to- Buddhist understanding, people often anticipate that certain problems will result. Whenever I talk with my own teacher, Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, about the need for more careful study of unfamiliar forms of Buddhism and for a less sectarian approach to Buddhist differences, she quickly says, “But we’re never going to agree anyway.” And I reply, just as quickly, “That’s not the point.” Because differences are so troubling to so many people, it is often thought that the ideal outcome of dialogue among those who hold different views or the study of unfamiliar perspectives would be finding convergence or agreement. There is, in other words, the hope that we’ll find that we only thought we disagreed or were different and that, with enough talking, we can overcome those differences. But the purpose of empathetic study and exchange is not agreement but mutual understanding. Agreement among the various forms of Buddhism is neither likely nor necessary. The establishment of mutual understanding allows friendliness and respect to replace suspicion and feelings of superiority or doubt. This process of becoming comfortable with difference is very difficult, but it is essential, because it allows us to move past competition and hostility.
Another misunderstanding of the purpose of empathetic study is the fantasy of arriving at what I call a “good parts version” of Buddhism. One can’t create a practice path serious enough to actually overcome samsara by taking from here and there a mishmash of just the things that one might happen to like. One famous meditation teacher spoke of how seven holes each dug seven feet deep are unlikely to strike water, whereas one well dug forty-nine feet deep stands a much better chance of quenching one’s thirst. In other words, one has to do the hard work of following a specific path to its end.
On the other hand, doing the hard work of empathetically studying other forms of Buddhism will surely affect one’s own understanding and practice. For example, now that Theravadins and Mahayanists can easily study one another’s texts, some Theravadins are beginning to study Nagarjuna, long thought to be the classical Mahayana philosopher par excellence, and are finding that in the only work that can definitively be attributed to him, Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (the Mulamadhyamakakarika), there is little that is specifically Mahayana, little that does not apply to them as well. Vajrayana practitioners are beginning to realize that some very important early texts were never transmitted to Tibet. This past summer, I was delighted when my teacher taught the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, one of those important texts that never made it into the Tibetan canon. Intensive reading of the Pali suttas, something rarely done by someone who practices in a Vajrayana tradition, has radically altered my understanding of both Buddhism as a whole and of Vajrayana Buddhism in particular. And so it goes. In cautioning about the “good parts” approach, I am not in the least denying the value of cross-pollination; I am saying, though, that piecing things together prematurely and superficially is going to be counterproductive.
The kind of contemplative training I am describing is not typical of Buddhist centers at present. For it to become more routine, we should be clear, at the outset, that such training is more appropriate for students in the middle of their training than for those at the beginning. Without grounding in a particular path, studying a wide variety of other paths might well be too confusing. But for the more advanced students, who is going to provide this kind of training? Most dharma teachers have not themselves been trained this way. I think, though, that if they truly appreciate the value of mutual understanding and knowledge— and maybe with a little guidance from those who have themselves focused on developing contemplative empathy— they could, for the most part, train themselves.
As to the objection that, if students learn to appreciate other forms of Buddhism, some may decide to change affiliations, I can only respond, What is the problem with that? Inevitably, some will decide that another form of Buddhism is karmically better suited to them than the one in which they have been training. To be troubled by such a possibility reflects a level of sectarianism that is, while not infrequent, not worthy of Buddhist sensibilities.
Perhaps the clearest sign that we are making real progress in coming to an accurate and empathetic understanding of one another would be if we began to focus more on our identities as Buddhists and less on our sectarian affiliations. My first teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, used to suggest that languages that place the adjective after, rather than before, the noun are more accurate. He suggested that the emphases and nuances were more correct if we said “horse, white” than if we say, as most of us are used to saying, “white horse.” Which is more important? That the animal to which I am pointing is a horse, or that it is white? In the same way, which is more important? That I am a Buddhist or that I practice in a Vajrayana tradition? With more empathy for and accurate understanding of other forms of Buddhism, with more understanding of the threads that link us all together, we might intuitively identify ourselves as “Buddhist, Zen,” “Buddhist, Theravada,” “Buddhist, Pure Land,” and so forth. As the old Jewish saying about the long-awaited and longdelayed arrival of the Messiah goes, “May it happen speedily and in our time!”
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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